Bring "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" into the Classroom

parks screenshot
Sun 18 2009

The first run of the PBS six-part documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea has finished on most local PBS stations, but resources abound for integrating materials from the program into various curriculum units. The photography's gorgeous and the reviews are mostly positive, and according to The New York Times review, the first two episodes (1851-1915) contain the best material of all: the story of how the park system was born and how the men and women who built it also nourished and protected it. ". . . [I]t's full of fascinating history and larger-than-life characters."

The Series in the Classroom

The series website is packed with opportunities for educators including lesson plans, materials, and instructions for digital tools needed to implement each unit. Resources include uploading your own national parks story, an archive of primary source documents and photos used to make the documentary, and biographical essays on individuals featured in the series. Short videos—a good length for classroom use or homework assignments— are also available online.

Multifaceted lesson plans provide a new perspective for traditional teaching units.

Lesson plans help integrate the materials into the classroom, offering a place-based perspective on environmental, political, and cultural themes in American history. Each lesson plan is accompanied by a video and a PDF of the plan, with screencasts and written directions to show teachers how to use digital tools necessary to implement some of the lesson plans—tools such as Google Earth and Flickr. Topics include A Campfire Conversation on an exchange of views between President Theodore Roosevelt and preservationist John Muir during a camping trip in 1903; All Aboard! See America First, an examination of the growth of the railroad and its impact on developing and preserving national parks; and Images of the Parks, a look at the works and roles of artists and photographers to interpret the history of the parks.

At the Clearinghouse

Search Website Reviews for national parks and among the 20 or so search results, you'll find Mapping the National Parks tracking explorers and exploration; Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, a site with manuscripts, images, films, and more documenting the movement's formation and growth; and a description of National Park Service, Teaching with Historic Places materials and resources.

Among our Lesson Plan Reviews, you'll find a prototype on the African American experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a complement to PBS materials on The Untold Stories Project highlighting underserved and underrepresented communities in our nation's national park system.

Then, visit our listing of Museums and Historic Sites to explore parks and their stories not included in the PBS series.

About the Author

Lee Ann Ghajar is a digital history associate in Public Projects at CHNM and a PhD candidate in American history at George Mason University.